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Phallic Produce and Over-Sexed Peasants in 16th and 17th Century Italian Art

In the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, the comedic produce paintings of papal Rome and the naturalistic peasant paintings of northern Italy both presented erotic situations that at surface level appear as juvenile examples of low humor. Analyzing these paintings within the large social and political context of the time, however, reveals tensions, transitions, and insecurities within the Church, class relations, and art itself.

Varriano cites the popularity of witty puns in the sixteenth century, contending that they embody the instability of politics and the Church (2009: 118). He argues that lusty fruit and vegetable paintings proved to be:

The perfect metaphor for the culture of post-Reformation Rome, in which the quest for religious and political orthodoxy may have increased uncertainties and humor was the only acceptable outlet for transgressive desire (Varriano 2009: 125).

In fact, erotic pun paintings were most popular in Rome, where these suggestive works may have provided sexual release from the repression required by Catholicism, especially for the clergy.

Caravaggio’s Still Life with Fruit on a Stone Ledge is a particularly strong example of these erotic paintings, as it portrays a veritable produce orgy. A ray of light beams down from the upper left and the heads of two brightly lit, erect gourds emerge from the upper right. These diagonal lines bring the eye to the center of the painting, where one gourd appears ready to take a perfectly round melon from behind. Bursting melons and figs fill the foreground, while a basket of yet to be deflowered fruit looks on from the upper left.

Caravaggio’s “Still Life with Fruit on a Stone Ledge”

Erotic paintings of the time embodied not only changes within religion, but also changing trends in art. At this time, subject matter shifted from religious narratives and idealized subjects to those of everyday life, emphasizing naturalism and realism. Paintings that satirized the foodways and sexual appetites of the lower social classes reveal this shift in art, while also embodying class insecurities of the time. For example, McTighe agrees that these paintings mark a shift toward naturalism, but that the lowly subjects chosen by the artists portray “a highly artificial, new, and troubling social order” (2004: 303).

In northern Italy, the peasant scenes created by Campi, Passarotti, and Carracci portray Pisanelli’s theories that certain foods, such as beans, squash, scallions, cheese, dark bread, and red wine, provide suitable nourishment for the laboring poor (Varriano 2009: 131). The delicate wealthy, however were better served by noble foods, including poultry and fish (Varriano 2009: 131).

Campi’s “Poulterers”

When scenes depict peasants selling noble foods, the foods are erotically arranged, representing uncontrolled peasant desires. For example, in Campi’s Poulterers the fowl held by a young boy at the right hangs suggestively between his legs (which my husband argues brings new life to the phrase “chocking the chicken”). The woman at the left cradles a bird in her arms, which drapes across her lap, creating not only a visually pleasing parallel with the line of her arching neck, but also symbolizing her own desire. Though full of classist undertones, Varriano contends Campi’s paintings “convey amusement rather than moral improvement, parody rather than sympathy” (2009:130).

Carracci’s “Butcher Shop”

Carracci’s paintings, such as the Butcher Shop and the Bean Eater, embody meaning through paradoxes. For example, the Butcher Shop conceptually offers a realistic and naturalistic depiction of butchering at a market that is at the same time highly aesthetic, borrowing the overall composition from a Raphael fresco. His aesthetic representation thus elevates the peasants depicted, but the subject matter itself offers a classist warning regarding carnal appetites, represented by the hanging pieces of red meat.

Food, such as the meat here, provides an apt visual metaphor for period discussions that linked social class to biology, elevating concerns over “you are what you eat” to a sociopolitical level. While lewd and humorous at the surface, there is far more to discover in these works than what first meets the eye.


  • McTighe, Sheila. “Foods and the Body in Italian Genre Paintings, about 1580: Campi, Passarotti, Carracci.” The Art Bulletin 86, no. 2 (June 2004): 301-23.
  • Varriano, John. Tastes and Temptations: Food and Art in Renaissance Italy. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009.

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